IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi
Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University;
Author, The Ancestor's Tale
all stop beating Basil's car
people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration
for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve
retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation,
but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want
to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did.
Or they want to give "satisfaction' to the victims
of the crime or their relatives. An especially warped and disgusting
application of the flawed concept of retribution is Christian
crucifixion as "atonement' for "sin'.
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific
view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human
brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made
computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When
a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the
problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component,
either in hardware or software.
Fawlty, British television's hotelier from hell
created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether
when his car broke down and wouldn't start. He gave it
fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and
then acted. "Right! I warned you. You've had this
coming to you!" He got out of the car, seized a tree branch
and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of
course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the
car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded?
Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply
run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective
man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at
a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh
at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced
the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships?
Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a
defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education?
like blame and responsibility are bandied about freely where
human wrongdoers are concerned. When a child robs an old lady,
should we blame the child himself or his parents? Or his school?
Negligent social workers? In a court of law, feeble-mindedness
is an accepted defence, as is insanity. Diminished responsibility
is argued by the defence lawyer, who may also try to absolve
his client of blame by pointing to his unhappy childhood, abuse
by his father, or even unpropitious genes (not, so far as I am
aware, unpropitious planetary conjunctions, though it wouldn't
doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the
nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility,
whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in
principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through
the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't
judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished
responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a
Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept
such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child
murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard
them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably
because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed
evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian
evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of
the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in
our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what
is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous
idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even
learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he
beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach
that level of enlightenment.
of Physics, University of the Mediterraneum, Marseille;
Member, Intitut Universitaire de France: Author, Quantum
the physics of the 20th century says about the world might
in fact be true
is a major "dangerous" scientific idea in contemporary
physics, with a potential impact comparable to Copernicus or
Darwin. It is the idea that what the physics of the 20th century
says about the world might in fact be true.
me explain. Take quantum mechanics. If taken seriously, it changes
our understanding of reality truly dramatically. For instance,
if we take quantum mechanics seriously, we cannot think that
objects have ever a definite position. They have a positions
only when they interact with something else. And even in this
case, they are in that position only with respect to that "something
else": they are still without position with respect to the
rest of the world. This is a change of image of the world far
more dramatic that Copernicus. And also a change about our possibility
of thinking about ourselves far more far-reaching than Darwin.
Still, few people take the quantum revolution really seriously.
The danger is exorcized by saying "well, quantum mechanics
is only relevant for atoms and very small objects...", or
similar other strategies, aimed at not taking the theory seriously.
We still haven't digested that the world is quantum mechanical,
and the immense conceptual revolution needed to make sense of
this basic factual discovery about nature.
example: take Einstein's relativity theory. Relativity makes
completely clear that asking "what happens right now on
Andromeda?" is a complete non-sense. There is no right now
elsewhere in the universe. Nevertheless, we keep thinking at
the universe as if there was an immense external clock that ticked
away the instants, and we have a lot of difficulty in adapting
to the idea that "the present state of the universe right
now", is a physical non-sense.
these cases, what we do is to use concepts that we have developed
in our very special environment (characterized by low velocities,
low energy...) and we think the world as if it was all like that.
We are like ants that have grown in a little garden with green
grass and small stones, and cannot think reality differently
than made of green grass and small stones.
think that seen from 200 years in the future, the dangerous scientific
idea that was around at the beginning of the 20th century, and
that everybody was afraid to accept, will simply be that the
world is completely different from our simple minded picture
of it. As the physics of the 20th century had already shown.
makes me smile is that even many of todays "audacious scientific
speculations" about things like extra-dimensions, multi-universes,
and the likely, are not only completely unsupported experimentally,
but are even always formulated within world view that, at a close
look, has not yet digested quantum mechanics and relativity!
Researcher, philosopher, software
developer, Author: 3DScience:
new Scanning Electron Microscope imagery
Chaos Theory in an all too practical sense
Ideas? It is dangerous ideas you want? From this group of people
? That in itself ought to be nominated as one of the more dangerous
is ubiquitous. If recent years have shown us anything, it should
be that "very simple small events can cause real havoc in
our society". A few hooded youths play cat and mouse with
the police: bang, thousands of burned cars put all of Paris into
a complete state of paralysis, mandatory curfew and the entire
system in shock and horror.
first thought was: what if any really smart set of people
really set their mind to it...how utterly and scarily trivial
it would be, to disrupt the very fabric of life, to bring society
to a dead stop?
relative innocence and stable period of the last 50 years may
spiral into a nearly inevitable exposure to real chaos. What
if it isn't haphazard testosterone driven riots, where they cannibalize
their own neighborhood, much like in L.A. in the 80s, but someone
with real insight behind that criminal energy ? What if Slashdotters
start musing aloud about "Gee, the L.A. water supply is
rather simplistic, isn't it?" An Open Source crime web,
a Wiki for real WTO opposition ? Hacking L.A. may be a lot easier
than hacking IE.
That is basic banter over a beer in a bar, I don't even want to
actually speculate what a serious set of brainiacs could conjure
up. And I refuse to even give it any more print space here. However,
the danger of such sad memes is what requires our attention!
fact, I will broaden the specter still: its not violent crime
and global terrorism I worry about, as much as the basic underpinning
of our entire civilization coming apart, as such. No acts of
malevolence, no horrible plans by evil dark forces, neither the
singular "Bond Nemesis" kind, nor masses of religious
fanatics. None of that needed... It is the glue that
is coming apart to topple this tower. And no, I am not referring
to "spiraling trillions of debt".
what I am referring to is a slow process I observed over the
last 30 years, ever since in my teens I wondered "How would
this world work, if everyone were like me ?" and realized:
it wouldn't !
It was amazing to me that there were just enough people to make
just enough shoes so that everyone can avoid walking barefoot.
That there are people volunteering to spend day-in, day-out, being
dentists, and lawyers and salesmen. Almost any "jobjob" I
look at, I have the most sincere admiration for the tenacity of
the people...how do they do it? It would drive me nuts
after hours, let alone years...Who makes those shoes ?
was the wondrous introspection in adolescent phases, searching
for a place in the jigsaw puzzle.
in recent years, the haunting question has come back to me: "How
the hell does this world function at all? And does it,
really ? I feel an alienation zapping through the channels, I
can't find myself connecting with those groups of humanoids trouncing
around MTV. Especially the glimpses of "real life":
on daytime-courtroom-dramas or just looking at faces in the street.
On every scale, the closer I observe it, the more the creeping
realization haunts me: individuals, families, groups, neighborhoods,
cities, states, countries... they all just barely hang in there,
between debt and dysfunction. The whole planet looks like Any
town with mini malls cutting up the landscape and just down the
road it's all white trash with rusty car wrecks in the back yard.
A huge Groucho Club I don't want to be a member of.
it does go further: what is particularly disturbing to see is
this desperate search for Individualism that has rampantly increased
in the last decade or so.
suddenly needs to be so special, be utterly unique.
So unique that they race off like lemmings to get 'even more
individual' tattoos, branded cattle, with branded chains in every
mall, converging on a blanded sameness world wide, but every
rap singer with ever more gold chains in ever longer stretched
limos is singing the tune: Don't be a loser! Don't be normal!
The desperation with which millions of youngsters try to be that
one-in-a-million professional ball player may have been just
a "sad but silly factoid" for a long time.
now the tables are turning: the anthill is relying on the behaviour
of the ants to function properly. And that implies: the social
behaviour, the role playing, taking defined tasks and follow
if each ant suddenly wants to be the queen? What if soldiering
and nest building and cleaning chores is just not cool enough
AntTV shows them every day nothing but un-Ant behaviour...?
my youth we were whining about what to do and how to do it, but
in the end,all of my friends did become "normal" humans,
orthopedics and lawyers, social workers, teachers... There were
always a few that lived on the edges of normality, like ending
up as television celebrities, but on the whole: they were perfectly
reasonable ants. 1.8 children, 2.7 cars, 3.3 TVs...
I am no longer confident that line will continue. If every honeymoon
is now booked in Bali on a Visa card, and every kid in Borneo
wants to play ball in NYC... can the network of society be pliable
enough to accommodate total upheaval? And what if 2 billion Chinese
and Indians raise a generation of kids staring 6+ hours a day
into All American values they can never attain... being taunted
with Hollywood movies of heroic acts and pathetic dysfunctionality,
coupled with ever increasing violence and disdain for ethics
scenes of desperate youths in South American slums watching "Kill
Bill" makes me think: this is just oxygen thrown into the
fire... The ants will not play along much longer. The anthill
will not survive if even a small fraction of the system is falling
that inane drive for "Super Individualism" (and the
Quest for Coolness by an ever increasing group destined to fail
miserably) with the scarily simple realization of how effective
even a small set of desperate people can become, then add the
obvious penchant for religious fanaticism and you have an ugly
picture of the long term future.
many curves that grow upwards towards limits, so many statistics
that show increases and no way to turn around.
in this forum may speculate about infinite life spans, changing
the speed of light, finding ways to decode consciousness, wormholes
to other dimensions and finding grand unified theories.
make it clear: I applaud that! "It does take all kinds".
Diversity is indeed one of the definitions of the meaning of life.
Edge IS Applied Diversity.
Those are viable and necessary questions for mankind as a whole,
however: I believe we need to clean house, re-evaluate, redefine
we look at the horizon here in these pages, it is the very ground
beneath us, that may be crumbling. The ant hill could really
go to ant hell! Next year, let's ask for good ideas.
Really practical, serious, good ideas. "The most
immediate positive global impact of any kind that can be achieved
within one year?". How to envision Internet3 and Web3 as
a real platform for a global brainstorming with 6+ billion potential
was not meant to sound like doom and gloom naysaying. I
see myself as a sincere optimist, but one who believes in realistic
pessimism as a useful tool to initiate change.
Emeritus, Senior Research Scientist, Department of Chemistry, New
York University. Author, Planetary Dreams
shall understand the origin of life within the next 5 years
Two very different groups will find this development
dangerous, and for different reasons, but this outcome is best
explained at the end of my discussion.
over a half century ago, in the spring of 1953, a famous experiment
brought enthusiasm and renewed interest to this field. Stanley
Miller, mentored by Harold Urey, demonstrated that a mixture
of small organic molecules (monomers) could readily be prepared
by exposing a mixture of simple gases to an electrical spark.
Similar mixtures were found in meteorites, which suggested that
organic monomers may be widely distributed in the universe. If
the ingredients of life could be made so readily, then why could
they not just as easily assort themselves to form cells?
that same spring, however, another famous paper was published
by James Watson and Francis Crick. They demonstrated that the
heredity of living organisms was stored in a very large large
molecule called DNA. DNA is a polymer, a substance made by stringing
many smaller units together, as links are joined to form a long
clear connection between the structure of DNA and its biological
function, and the geometrical beauty of the DNA double helix
led many scientists to consider it to be the essence of life
itself. One flaw remained, however, to spoil this picture. DNA
could store information, but it could not reproduce itself without
the assistance of proteins, a different type of polymer. Proteins
are also adept at increasing the rate of (catalyzing) many other
chemical reactions that are considered necessary for life. The
origin of life field became mired in the "chicken-or-the
egg" question. Which came first: DNA or proteins? An apparent
answer emerged when it was found that another polymer, RNA (a
cousin of DNA) could manage both heredity and catalysis. In 1986,
Walter Gilbert proposed that life began with an "RNA World." Life
started when an RNA molecule that could copy itself was formed,
by chance, in a pool of its own building blocks.
a half century of chemical experiments have demonstrated that
nature has no inclination to prepare RNA, or even the building
blocks (nucleotides) that must be linked together to form RNA.
Nucleotides are not formed in Miller-type spark discharges, nor
are they found in meteorites. Skilled chemists have prepared
nucleotides in well-equipped laboratories, and linked them to
form RNA, but neither chemists nor laboratories were present
when life began on the early Earth. The Watson-Crick theory sparked
a revolution in molecular biology, but it left the origin-of-life
question at an impasse.
an alternative solution to this dilemma has gradually emerged:
neither DNA nor RNA nor protein were necessary for the origin
of life. Large molecules dominate the processes of life today,
but they were not needed to get it started. Monomers themselves
have the ability to support heredity and catalysis. The key requirement
is that a suitable energy source be available to assist them
in the processes of self-organization. A demonstration of the
principle involved in the origin of life would require only that
a suitable monomer mixture be exposed to an appropriate energy
source in a simple apparatus. We could then observe the very
first steps in evolution.
mixtures will work, but many others will fail, for technical
reasons. Some dedicated effort will be needed in the laboratory
to prove this point. Why have I specified five years for this
discovery? The unproductive polymer-based paradigm is far from
dead, and continues to consume the efforts of the majority of
workers in the field. A few years will be needed to entice some
of them to explore the other solution. I estimate that several
years more (the time for a PhD thesis) might be required to identify
a suitable monomer-energy combination, and perform a convincing
would be disturbed if such efforts should succeed? Many scientists
have been attracted by the RNA World theory because of its elegance
and simplicity. Some of them have devoted decades of their career
in efforts to prove it. They would not be pleased if Freeman
Dyson's description proved to be correct: "life began with
little bags, the precursors of cells, enclosing small volumes
of dirty water containing miscellaneous garbage."
very different group would find this development as dangerous
as the theory of evolution. Those who advocate creationism and
intelligent design would feel that another pillar of their belief
system was under attack. They have understood the flaws in the
RNA World theory, and used them to support their supernatural
explanation for life's origin. A successful scientific theory
in this area would leave one less task less for God to accomplish:
the origin of life would be a natural (and perhaps frequent)
result of the physical laws that govern this universe. This latter
thought falls directly in line with the idea of Cosmic Evolution,
which asserts that events since the Big Bang have moved almost
inevitably in the direction of life. No miracle or immense stroke
of luck was needed to get it started. If this should be the case,
then we should expect to be successful when we search for life
beyond this planet. We are not the only life that inhabits this
University of New Mexico; Author, The
consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox
story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was
talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence
with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy
holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively
on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing
species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years.
They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common
by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So,
where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence
is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum
became known as Fermi's Paradox.
paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar
planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting
that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows
that organic life evolved very quickly after earth's surface
cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution
shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social
complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible
paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence.
Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence
have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft
sightings, no close encounters of any kind.
it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science
over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence
evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some
deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After
Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make
colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear
bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps
extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi's
Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War
suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's Paradox.
Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they
just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio
signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway
consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels
to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as
we are doing today.
fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention
to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking
fitness itself. We don't seek reproductive success directly;
we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious
mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results:
fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling
external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but
it's even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective
cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects.
Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free
soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching
Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much
harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars
technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological
resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read
more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament
this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution
virtual ape in Peter Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution
real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival
of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD,
TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online,
instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of
physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework,
dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control
to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last
minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design
for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.
1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes,
zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners,
bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the
top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon,
Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi,
Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We
have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy,
from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator.
We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud's pleasure
principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast
human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting
messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.
the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period
of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent
life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological
species — to shape their subjective reality to provide
the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance.
Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating
more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their
variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist
the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will
evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism.
They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive
drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard
work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental
stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious
Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.
dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening.
Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists,
already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and
how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class
dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently
for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded
breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have
inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact,
it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It
will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate
each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They
will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred
Neuroscientist, Chairman, Board
of Directors, Human Science Center and Department
of Medical Psychology, Munich University, Germany;
belief in science
life expectancy of a species on this globe is just a few million
years. From an external point of view, it would be nothing special
if humankind suddenly disappears. We have been here for sometime.
With humans no longer around, evolutionary processes would have
an even better chance to fill in all those ecological niches
which have been created by human activities. As we change the
world, and as thousands of species are lost every year because
of human activities, we provide a new and productive environment
for the creation of new species. Thus, humankind is very creative
with respect to providing a frame for new evolutionary trajectories,
and humankind would even be more creative, if it has disappeared
altogether. If somebody (unfortunately not our descendents) would
visit this globe some time later, they would meet many new species,
which owe their existence the presence and the disappearance
this is not going to happen, because we are doing science. With
science we apparently get a better understanding of basic principles
in nature, we have a chance to improve quality of life, and we
can develop means to extend the life expectancy of our species.
Unfortunately, some of these scientific activities have a paradoxical
effect resulting in a higher risk for a common disappearance.
Maybe, science will not be so effective after all to prevent
now comes my dangerous idea as my (!) dangerous idea. It is not
so difficult to come up with a dangerous scenario on a general
level, but if one takes such a question also seriously on a personal
level, one has to meditate an individual scenario. I am very
grateful for this question formulated by Steven Pinker as it
forced me to visit my episodic memory and to think about what
has been and still is "my dangerous idea". Although
nobody else might be interested in a personal statement, I say
it anyway: My dangerous idea is my belief in science.
all my research (in the field of temporal perception or visual
processes) I have a basic trust in the scientific activities,
and I actually believe the results I have obtained. And I believe
the results of others. But why? I know that there so many unknown
and unknowable variables that are part of the experimental setup
and which cannot be controlled. How can I trust in spite of so
many unknowables (does this word exist in English?)? Furthermore,
can I really rely on my thinking, can I trust my eyes and ears?
Can I be so sure about my scientific activities that I communicate
with pride the results to others? If I look at the complexity
of the brain, how is it possible that something reasonable comes
out of this network? How is it possible that a face that I see
or a thought that I have maintain their identity over time? If
I have no access to what goes on in my brain, how can I be so
proud, (how can anybody be so proud) about scientific achievements?
Biologist; Professor, Department of Ecology and
Evolution, University of Chicago; Author (with
H. Allen Orr), Speciation
behaviors of modern humans were genetically hard-wired (or
soft-wired) in our distant ancestors by natural selection
me, one idea that is dangerous and possibly true is an extreme
form of evolutionary psychology — the view that many behaviors
of modern humans were genetically hard-wired (or soft-wired)
in our distant ancestors by natural selection.
The reason I say that this idea might be true is that we cannot
be sure of the genetic and evolutionary underpinnings of most human
behaviors. It is difficult or impossible to test many of the conjectures
of evolutionary psychology. Thus, we can say only that behaviors
such as the sexual predilections of men versus women, and the extreme
competitiveness of males, are consistent with evolutionary psychology.
consistency arguments have two problems. First, they are not
hard scientific proof. Are we satisfied that sonnets are phallic
extensions simply because some male poets might have used them
to lure females? Such arguments fail to meet the normal standards
of scientific evidence.
as is well known, one can make consistency arguments for virtually
every human behavior. Given the possibilities of kin selection
(natural selection for behaviors that do no good for to their
performers but are advantageous to their relatives) and reciprocal
altruism, and our ignorance of the environments of our ancestors,
there is no trait beyond evolutionary explanation. Indeed, there
are claims for the evolutionary origin of even manifestly maladaptive
behaviors, such as homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and extreme
forms of altruism (e.g., self-sacrifice during wartime). But
surely we cannot consider it scientifically proven that genes
for homosexuality are maintained in human populations by kin
selection. This remains possible but undemonstrated.
much of human behavior does seem to conform to Darwinian expectations.
Males are promiscuous and females coy. We treat our relatives
better than we do other people. The problem is where to draw
the line between those behaviors that are so obviously adaptive
that no one doubts their genesis (e.g. sleeping and eating),
those which are probably but not as obviously adaptive (e.g.,
human sexual behavior and our fondness for fats and sweets) and
those whose adaptive basis is highly speculative (e.g., the origin
of art and our love of the outdoors).
I have been highly critical of evolutionary psychology, I have
not done so from political motives, nor do I think that the discipline
is in principle misguided. Rather, I have been critical because
evolutionary psychologists seem unwilling to draw lines between
what can be taken as demonstrated and what remains speculative,
making the discipline more of a faith than a science. This lack
of rigor endangers the reputation of all of evolutionary biology,
making our endeavors seem to be merely the concoction of ingenious
stories. If we are truly to understand human nature, and use
this knowledge constructively, we must distinguish the probably
true from the possibly true.
why do I see evolutionary psychology as dangerous? I think it
is because I am afraid to see myself and my fellow humans as
mere marionettes dancing on genetic strings. I would like to
think that we have immense freedom to better ourselves as individuals
and to create a just and egalitarian society. Granted, genetics
is not destiny, but neither are we completely free of our evolutionary
baggage. Might genetics really hold a leash on our capacity to
change? If so, then some claims of evolutionary psychology give
us convenient but dangerous excuses for behaviors that seem unacceptable.
It is all too easy, for example, for philandering males to excuse
their behavior as evolutionarily justified. Evolutionary psychologists
argue that it is possible to overcome our evolutionary heritage.
But what if it is not so easy to take the Dawkinsian road and
"rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators"?
Harvard University; Author, Wet Mind
Science of the Divine?
an idea that many academics may find unsettling and dangerous:
God exists. And here's another idea that many religious people
may find unsettling and dangerous: God is not supernatural, but
rather part of the natural order. Simply stating these ideas
in the same breath invites them to scrape against each other,
and sparks begin to fly. To avoid such conflict, Stephen Jay
Gould famously argued that we should separate religion and science,
treating them as distinct "magisteria." But science
leads many of us to try to understand all that we encounter with
a single, grand and glorious overarching framework. In this spirit,
let me try to suggest one way in which the idea of a "supreme
being" can fit into a scientific worldview.
offer the following not to advocate the ideas, but rather simply
to illustrate one (certainly not the only) way that the concept
of God can be approached scientifically.
First, here's the specific conception of God I want to explore:
God is a "supreme being" that transcends space and
time, permeates our world but also stands outside of it, and
can intervene in our daily lives (partly in response to prayer).
A way to begin to think about this conception of the divine rests
on three ideas:
Emergent properties. There are many examples in science where
aggregates produce an entity that has properties that cannot
be predicted entirely from the elements themselves. For example,
neurons in large numbers produce minds; moreover, minds in large
numbers produce economic, political, and social systems.
2.2. Downward causality. Events at "higher levels" (where
emergent properties become evident) can in turn feed back and affect
events at lower levels. For example, chronic stress (a mental event)
can cause parts of the brain to become smaller. Similarly, an economic
depression or the results of an election affect the lives of the
individuals who live in that society.
2.3. The Ultimate Superset. The Ultimate Superset (superordinate
set) of all living things may have an equivalent status to an economy
or culture. It has properties that emerge from the interactions
of living things and groups of living things, and in turn can feed
back to affect those things and groups.
Can we conceive of God as an emergent property of all living
things that can in turn affect its constituents? Here are some
ways in which this idea is consistent with the nature of God,
as outlined at the outset.
This emergent entity is "transcendent" in the sense
that it exists in no specific place or time. Like a culture or
an economy, God is nowhere, although the constituent elements
occupy specific places. As for transcending time, consider this
analogy: Imagine that 1/100th of the neurons in your brain were
replaced every hour, and each old neuron programmed a new one
so that the old one's functionality was preserved. After 100
hours your brain would be an entirely new organ
— but your mind would continue to exist as it had been before.
Similarly, as each citizen dies and is replaced by a child, the
culture continues to exist (and can grow and develop, with a "life
of its own"). So too with God. For example, in the story of
Jacob's ladder, Jacob realizes "Surely the Lord is
in this place, and I did not know it." (Genesis 28: 16) I
interpret this story as illustrating that God is everywhere but
nowhere. The Ultimate Superset permeates our world but also stands
outside of (or, more specifically, "above") it.
3.2. The Ultimate Superset can affect our individual lives. Another
analogy: Say that geese flying south for the winter have rather
unreliable magnetic field detectors in their brains. However, there's
a rule built into their brains that leads them to try to stay near
their fellows as they fly. The flock as a whole would navigate
far better than any individual bird, because the noise in the individual
bird brain navigation systems would cancel out. The emergent entity — the
flock — in turn would affect the individual geese, helping
them to navigate better than they could on their own.
3.3. When people pray to the Lord, they beseech intervention on
their or others' behalf. The view that I've been outlining invites
us to think of the effects of prayer as akin to becoming more sensitive
to the need to stay close to the other birds in the flock: By praying,
one can become more sensitive to the emergent "supreme being." Such
increased sensitivity may imply that one can contribute more strongly
to this emergent entity.
analogy, it's as if one of those geese became aware of the "keep
near" rule, and decided to nudge the other birds in a particular
direction — which thereby allows it to influence the flock's
effect on itself. To the extent that prayer puts one closer to
God, one's plea for intervention will have a larger impact on
the way that The Ultimate Superset exerts downward causality.
But note that, according to this view, God works rather slowly.
Think of dropping rocks in a pond: it takes time for the ripples
to propagate and eventually be reflected back from the edge,
forming interference patterns in the center of the pond.
A crucial idea in monotheistic religions is that God is the Creator.
The present approach may help us begin to grapple with this idea,
First, consider each individual person. The environment plays
a key role in creating who and what we are because there are
far too few genes to program every aspect of our brains. For
example, when you were born, your genes programmed many connections
in your visual areas, but did not specify the precise circuits
necessary to determine how far away objects are. As an infant,
the act of reaching for an object tuned the brain circuits that
estimate how far away the object was from you.
your genes graced you with the ability to acquire language, but
not with a specific language. The act of acquiring a language
shapes your brain (which in turn may make it difficult to acquire
another language, with different sounds and grammar, later in
life). Moreover, cultural practices configure the brains of members
of the culture. A case in point: the Japanese have many forms
of bowing, which are difficult for a Westerner to master relatively
late in life; when we try to bow, we "bow with an accent."
4.2. And the environment not only played an essential role in how
we developed as children, but also plays a continuing role in how
we develop over the course of our lives as adults. The act of learning
literally changes who and what we are.
4.3. According to this perspective, it's not just negotiating the
physical world and sociocultural experience that shape the brain:
The Ultimate Superset — the emergent property of all living
things — affects all of the influences that "make us
who and what we are," both as we develop during childhood
and continue to learn and develop as adults.
4.4. Next, consider our species. One could try to push this perspective
into a historical context, and note that evolution by natural selection
reflects the effects of interactions among living things. If so,
then the emergent properties of such interactions could feed back
to affect the course of evolution itself.
short, it is possible to begin to view the divine through the
lens of science. But such reasoning does no more than set the
stage; to be a truly dangerous idea, this sort of proposal must
be buttressed by the results of empirical test. At present, my
point is not to convince, but rather to intrigue. As much as
I admired Stephen Jay Gould (and I did, very much), perhaps he
missed the mark on this one. Perhaps there is a grand project
waiting to be launched, to integrate the two great sources of
knowledge and belief in the world today — science and religion.
Biotechonomy; Founding Director, Harvard Business
School's Life Sciences Project; Author, The
Untied States of America
can untie the U.S.
grows and dies; same is true of countries. The only question
is how long one postpones the inevitable. In the case of some
countries, life spans can be very long, so it is worth asking
is the U.S. in adolescence, middle age, or old age? Do science
and technology accelerate or offset demise? And finally "how
many stars will be in the U.S. flag in fifty years?"
has yet to be a single U.S. president buried under the same flag
he was born under, yet we oft take continuity for granted. Just
as almost no newlyweds expect to divorce, citizens rarely assume
their beloved country, flag and anthem might end up an exhibit
in an archeology museum. But countries rich and poor, Asian,
African, and European have been untying time and again. In the
last five decades the number of UN members has tripled. This
trend goes way beyond the de-colonization of the 1960s, and it
is not exclusive to failed states; it is a daily debate within
the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands,
Austria, and many others.
far the Americas has remained mostly impervious to these global
trends, but, even if in God you trust, there are no guarantees.
Over the next decade waves of technology will wash over the U.S.
Almost any applied field you care to look at promises extraordinary
change, opportunities, and challenges. (Witness the entries in
this edition of Edge). How counties adapt to massive,
rapid upheaval will go a long way towards determining the eventual
outcome. To paraphrase Darwin, it is not the strongest, not the
largest, that survive rather it is those best prepared to cope
is easy to argue that the U.S. could be a larger more powerful
country in fifty years. But it is also possible that, like so
many other great powers, it could begin to unravel and untie.
This is not something that depends on what we do decide to do
fifty years hence; to a great extent it depends on what we choose
to do, or choose to ignore, today. There are more than a few
ability to generate wealth depends on techno-literacy. But educational
excellence, particularly in grammar and high schools is far from
uniform, and it is not world class. Time and again the U.S. does
poorly, particularly in regards to math and science, when compared
with its major trading partners. Internally, there are enormous
disparities between schools and between the number of students
that pass state competency exams and what federal tests tell
us about the same students. There are also large gaps in techno
literacy between ethnic groups. By 2050 close to 40% of the U.S.
population will be Hispanic and African American. These groups
receive 3% of the PhDs in math and science today. How we prepare
kids for a life sciences, materials, robotics, IT, and nanotechnology
driven world is critical. But we currently invest $22,000 federal
dollars in those over 65 and just over $2,000 in those under
ethnic, age, and regional gaps in the ability to adapt increase
there are many wary and frustrated by technology, open borders,
free trade, and smart immigrants. Historically, when others use
newfangled ways to leap ahead, it can lead to a conservative
response. This is likeliest within those societies and groups
thant have the most to lose, often among those who have been
the most successful. One often observes a reflexive response:
stop the train; I want to get off. Or, as the Red Sox now say,
just wait till last year. No more teaching evolution, no more
research into stem cells, no more Indian or Chinese or Mexican
immigrants, no matter how smart or hardworking they might be.
These individual battles are signs of a creeping xenophobia,
isolationism, and fury.
the U.S. there are many who are adapting very successfully. They
tend to concentrate in a very few zip codes, life science clusters
like 92121(between Salk, Scripps, and UCSD) and techno-empires
like 02139 (MIT). Most of the nation's wealth and taxes are generated
by a few states and, within these states, within in a few square
miles. It is those who live in these areas that are most affronted
by restrictions on research, the lack of science literate teenagers,
and the reliance on God instead of science.
well understand these divides and they have gerrymandered their
own districts to reflect them. Because competitive congressional
elections are rarer today than turnovers within the Soviet Politburo,
there is rarely an open debate and discussion as to why other
parts of the country act and think so differently. The Internet
and cable further narrowcast news and views, tending to reinforce
what one's neighbors and communities already believe. Positions
harden. Anger at "the others" mounts.
a large and mounting debt to this equation, along with politicized
religion, and the mixture becomes explosive. The average household
now owes over $88,000 and the present value of what we have promised
to pay is now about $473,000. There is little willingness within
Washington to address a mounting deficit, never mind the current
account imbalance. Facing the next electoral challenge, few seem
to remember the last act of many an empire is to drive itself
or later we could witness some very bitter arguments about who
gets and who pays. In developed country after developed country,
it is often the richest, not the ethnically or religiously repressed,
that first seek autonomy and eventually dissolution. In this
context it is worth recalling that New England, not the South,
has been the most secession prone region. As the country expanded,
New Englanders attempted to include the right to untie into the
constitution; the argument was that as this great country expanded
South and West they would lose control over their political and
economic destiny. Perhaps this is what led to four separate attempts
to untie the Union.
we assume stability and continuity we can wake up to irreconcilable
differences. Science and a knowledge driven economy can allow
a few folks to build powerful and successful countries very quickly,
witness Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, but changes of this
magnitude can also bury or split the formerly great who refuse
to adapt, as well as those who practice bad governance. If we
do not begin to address some current divides quickly we could
live to see an Un-Tied States of America.
Computer Scientist, Brandeis University
as just another Religion
scientists like to think that our "way of knowing" is
special. Instead of holding beliefs based on faith in invisible
omniscient deities, or parchments transcribed from oral cultures,
we use the scientific method to discover and know. Truth may
be eternal, but human knowledge of that truth evolves over time,
as new questions are asked, data is recorded, hypotheses are
tested, and replication and refutation mechanisms correct the
it is a very dangerous idea to consider Science as just another
Religion. It's not my idea, but one I noticed growing in a set
of Lakovian Frames within the Memesphere.
of the frame is that scientists are doom and gloom prophets.
For example, at a recent popular technology conference, a parade
of speakers spoke about the threats of global warming, the sea
level rising by 18 feet and destroying cities, more category
5 hurricanes, etc. It was quite a reversal from the positivistic
techno-utopian promises of miraculous advances in medicine, computers,
and weaponry that have allowed science to bloom in the late 20th
century. A friend pointed out that — in the days before
— these scientists might be wearing sandwich-board signs
saying "The End is Near!"
element in the framing of science as a religion is the response
to evidence-based policy. Scientists who do take political stands
on "moral" issues such as stem-cell research, death
penalty, nuclear weapons, global warming, etc., can be sidelined
as atheists, humanists, or agnostics who have no moral or ethical
standing outside their narrow specialty (as compared to, say,
third, and the most nefarious frame, casts theory as one opinion
among others which should represented out of fairness or tolerance.
This is the subterfuge used by Intelligent Design Creationists.
may believe in the separation of church and state, but that firewall
has fallen. Science and Reason are losing political battles to
Superstition and Ignorance. Politics works by rewarding friends
and punishing enemies, and while our individual votes may be
private, exit polls have proven that Science didn't vote for
seem to be three choices going forward: Reject, Accommodate,
path is to go on an attack on religion in the public sphere.
In his book End of Faith, Sam Harris points out that
humoring people who believe in God is like humoring people who
believe that "a diamond  the size of a refrigerator" is
buried in their back yard. There is a fine line between pushing
God out of our public institutions and repeating religious intolerance
of regimes past.
second is to embrace Faith-Based Science. Since, from the perspective
of government, research just another special interest feeding
at the public trough, we should change our model to be more accommodating
to political reality. Research is already sold like highway construction
projects, with a linear accelerator for your state and a supercomputer
center for mine, all done through direct appropriations. All
that needs to change is the justifications for such spending.
would Faith-Based Science work? Well, Physics could sing the
psalm that Perpetual Motion would solve the energy crisis, thereby
triggering a $500 billion program in free energy machines. (Of
course, God is on our side to repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics!)
Astronomy could embrace Astrology and do grassroots PR through
Daily Horoscopes to gain mass support for a new space program.
In fact, an anti-gravity initiative could pass today if it were
spun as a repeal of the "heaviness tax." Using the
renaming principle, the SETI program can be re-legalized and
brought back to life as the "Search for God" project.
the third idea is to actually embrace this dangerous
idea and organize a new open-source spiritual and moral movement.
I think a new, greener religion, based on faith in the Gaia Hypothesis
and an 11th commandment to "Protect the Earth" could
catch on, especially if welcoming to existing communities of
faith. Such a movement could be a new pulpit from which the evidence-based
silent majority can speak with both moral force and evangelical
fervor about issues critical to the future of our planet.